Twenty-year-old Helen Smith has never been to a nightclub. She laughs when she admits this. She’s certainly tried to go clubbing; as a young person growing up in East London, it’s frankly hard to avoid.
But Smith is not a legal British citizen, which means that she has no legal photo ID—which means no clubbing. That’s the least of the problems she’s encountered because of her lack of citizenship: She’s been dismissed from jobs, struggled to access basic services that citizens take for granted, and gone through life feeling trapped. While her friends can go on cheap holidays to France or Italy, Smith hasn’t left London in nearly two decades because she still doesn’t have a passport. Worse still, her one year-old daughter Mya, despite being born in the UK, is now in the same predicament.
“I’m still stuck in the same country I’ve been stuck in since I was two months old,” Smith tells Quartz. “I just want to breathe some different air. See something different.” She moved to London with her family from Nigeria as a baby, and under British law, she is eligible for citizenship. There’s just one problem: She can’t afford it.
The UK has thousands of people like Smith and her daughter, stuck in citizenship limbo. The rules around British citizenship are complicated. If a child is born in the UK and if, at the time of birth, at least one of their parents has British citizenship or settled status, then the child automatically qualifies as a British citizen and can easily get a passport.
But if the child is born in the UK to parents who don’t have British citizenship or settled status; born in the UK to a parent who gains British citizenship or settled status after their birth; or is stateless and has grown up in the UK, then that child doesn’t automatically qualify for British citizenship. These children do, however, have the legal right to British citizenship (a right enshrined in law by the Nationality Act of 1981). To get it, they have to apply to register as British citizens—a process that now costs child applicants £973 ($1,377). Those who apply aged 18 or shortly after have to pay £1,282.
Those who can’t afford to register as British citizens find themselves in a precarious position. They could be denied their right to work, rent, and access health care and social support once they become adults, and wind up paying international fees to study at British universities. They’re even at risk of being removed from the UK and deported if they can’t prove they have a right to live in the country (many applicants struggle to get the right documents).
“It is probably the most unlawful, scandalous thing that the government is doing,” says Solange Valdez-Symonds, an immigration lawyer and founder of the charity the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens (PRCBC). This isn’t simply an immigration issue. Estimates suggest there are around 120,000 young people (pdf) living in Britain without citizenship or secured status. Of these, approximately 65,000 were born in Britain.
It wasn’t always this way. Until 1981, a person born in Britain or within the British empire was automatically a British subject. When the UK changed the law, other countries followed suit—most notably New Zealand in 2005 (pdf), which changed its law so that a person born in New Zealand was no longer automatically entitled to citizenship. It’s also increasingly commonplace for countries to demand that people pass a test before they become citizens, and to charge application fees. And so the UK is part of a global push to turn citizenship into a commodity—one that, for many, is simply out of reach.
Smith has permanent residency in the UK. But while she has the right to work and study in the country, her status is constantly questioned and challenged. She recently had a job at a coffee shop, but was approached by management after working there for a week. They questioned her right to work in the UK and dismissed her. “I cried because I was dying for a job, I was losing my mind. I was really working hard and they just let me go,” she says. It’s illegal to dismiss someone like Smith who has permanent residency in the UK, but Valdez-Symonds says many employers have a poor understanding of immigration law: “With indefinite leave to remain, you’ll always be questioned.” Others do so to discriminate against those who don’t have British citizenship.
But the benefits of citizenship are not only about access, Valdez-Symonds says: It’s also about being able to say that you belong.
“I don’t think we are part of society,” says 39-year-old Felicia, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. She moved from Nigeria to the UK in 2005, hoping, like so many migrants, to escape poverty. She came to the UK with her 11-month daughter, now age 13, and went on to have a daughter and son—now 10 and 7 years old, respectively.
Felicia’s three children are entitled to British citizenship. The only thing getting in the way is the registration fee. But Felicia doesn’t have thousands of pounds to pay toward their registration. Felicia and her children were homeless and destitute as recently as 2015; they got back on their feet thanks in large part to support from the local government and her children’s school. “We can’t even feed ourselves very well. We feed on canned foods; we don’t have fresh foods because we can’t afford it. So how are we going to pay for that [the fee]?” she asks.
Her eldest daughter was supposed to go to France on a school trip with her peers, but couldn’t because she still doesn’t have a British passport. “It’s so painful. They are trapped,” Felicia says. “We feel rejected. We feel robbed of our right.”
It’s a sentiment Valdez-Symonds come across often. She adds that lack of citizenship not only interferes with a child’s personal, educational, and social development, but badly affects their mental health.
Valdez-Symonds set up PRCBC in 2012, and has since been overwhelmed with requests for help. The organization relies heavily on volunteers, working to advise destitute or otherwise vulnerable children and their families. But PRCBC doesn’t have the funding to help with application fees, and the Home Office, which deals with immigration issues, does not offer any fee waivers or grants for those trying to register children as British citizens. There aren’t charities willing to pay the fees either; destitute families largely have to rely on the goodwill of their communities.
Valdez-Symonds took the matter to the British High Court last year, but the court declined to rule on the lawfulness of a fee that is preventing children registering for their legal right to British citizenship. The court did, however, acknowledge that the issue affects thousands of children.
The Home Office claims that the administrative cost of registering a citizen is roughly £386. This means the Home Office makes a £587 profit from registering a child’s citizenship. According to Amnesty International, “the Home Office has been profiteering off children in this way for around a decade. In doing so, it has denied many children, who simply cannot afford the fee, the citizenship that is theirs by right.” Moreover, if an applicant manages to come up with the fee and is refused registration, they have to pay another £321 to get the Home Office to review that decision.
Overall, naturalization fees in the UK are some of the most expensive in the world. An adult looking to become a “naturalized” British citizen has to pay $1,807 for their application, a figure that dwarfs the fees in the US ($725), Canada ($505), and Germany ($319).
Immigration fees have risen dramatically in the UK. Costs to register a child’s citizenship application soared by 153% in the last seven years. The naturalization fees for adults have also jumped from £836 to just under £1300 in 2017.
For many people who qualify for citizenship but are unable to afford it, Britain’s fast-changing political climate has added extra layer of urgency. “Citizenship is the ultimate protection, the ultimate feeling that you belong and that nothing can just suddenly happen that will turn you all around,” says Valdez-Symonds.
Not only would citizenship make people like Smith feel more secure about their place in British society, it would also permit them to cross borders; to connect with cultures and countries beyond the UK. Smith describes London as home, saying, “I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.” At the same time, she wants to be able to say she’s experienced other places—to have the simple pleasure of feeling homesick for once.
For now, she’s putting all her energy into ensuring Mya is registered, working closely with Valdez-Symonds. They are raising the funds for Mya’s registration through donations and the generosity of philanthropist.
“I can never have my baby go through what I went through,” Smith explains, “To be trapped, not being able to work, not being able to study, not being able to just do anything.”
Once that’s sorted, she’ll focus on herself. She hopes that she’ll finally have her time to shine on the dance floor.
*Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.